Jackson Pollock's 'Mural' to be on view again

Artwork to return to Iowa in June

Diana Nollen
Published: March 8 2014 | 3:30 am - Updated: 1 April 2014 | 9:18 am in

"Mural" flung Jackson Pollock from obscurity to the world stage. Beginning Tuesday, the world will see his enormous breakthrough canvas lighter, brighter and chattier than ever.

That's when it goes on display at the Getty Center in Los Angeles, where "hundreds" of experts have spent nearly two years studying and restoring the 8-by-20-foot complex swirls of color that mark the beginning of abstract art in America. It will hang there  through June 1, before returning to Iowa for an exhibition at the Sioux City Art Center from June 10 through April 10, 2015.

It will return to the University of Iowa upon completion of a new art museum to replace the one lost to the Floods of 2008. That could come in the next few years, said Sean O’Harrow, the UI museum’s executive director.

Getty personnel were hoping "Mural," donated to the UI in 1951 by Peggy Guggenheim, would have something to say. It hasn't stopped talking since it arrived in Los Angeles in the summer of 2012.

Sagging under its own weight and growing cloudy with age, it was rumored to have been painted in one night, either vertically or horizontally like Pollock's later "drip" paintings, with his signature buried under the swirls of paint.

The painting dispels those rumors. The multiple layers, some applied as wet paint over dry, show it wasn't painted in a daylong frenzy, and it most likely was painted upright, with no sign of a hidden signature.

"We couldn't find anything that backed up" the signature myth, said Tom Learner, head of Getty Conservation Institute Science, overseeing its Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative. "We're fairly confident there's nothing there, although you could spell anything in that painting."

While researchers did discover Pollock used a high-quality canvas and oil paints, an unexpected delight was finding that he also used something akin to an off-white house paint here and there. Learner was "mildly" disappointed by the conventional aspects of the paint, as Pollock turned more experimental with his paints later on.

Months of study, testing and pondering were required before cotton swab could be applied to this work, commissioned by Guggenheim in 1943 for the entrance hall of her five-story New York City townhouse. Pollock had to tear out a wall in his own apartment to accommodate the huge canvas.

According to the book published in conjunction with the Getty exhibition, Pollock signed an unusual one-year contract ensuring a $150 monthly stipend and his first one-man show. The painting is now insured for $140 million.

While no one from the Getty would provide a dollar figure for the restoration efforts, O'Harrow called it "millions." He also declined to say what the UI paid for the ground transportation, a convoy which included experts and security personnel.

"That cost pales in comparison to what the Getty spent," he said. "We spent virtually nothing and their costs were immense — many millions of dollars, but it's the richest museum in the world. They have resources that whole states would only dream about."

He's been thrilled with the process and its long-lasting implications.

"The Getty is the top conservation entity in the world that does this work pro bono," O'Harrow said. "The price is right for us. Plus, they bring in a whole load of other benefits — the Getty conservation team provides science research, the Getty Museum will do art historical research and exhibitions, and the Getty Research Institute will also bring other research functions, including the Getty Research Institute journal."

O'Harrow said the Getty originally declined the project as "too big" when approached by the UI by his predecessors. (He previously was executive director at Davenport's Figge Museum, which housed and exhibited "Mural" after the Floods of 2008.)

"It is a key work of the 20th century, and the Getty does not usually conserve paintings from the 20th century. They're typically restoring medieval, renaissance (and) classical paintings," O'Harrow said.

But in 2011, shortly after he arrived at the UI, the timing was right to pitch it again.

"A unit within the Getty Conservation Institute was doing research on modern paintings and the like, so there was a good reason to look into it," O'Harrow said.

He wrote to the head of the conservation unit, and copied the paintings curator, who "apparently ran down the hall and said, 'You've gotta do this project.' "

And the partnership was launched.

The first step involved looking and learning.

"We spent at least three months just living with the painting and studying it," said Yvonne Szafran, head of the Getty Museum’s Paintings Conservation department. "That is something we try to do with every project we take on because you don't want to immediately leap into the conservation treatment until you really understand the object from the physical perspective."

One of the largest tasks involved removing a thin layer of varnish that had been applied over the paint during conservation efforts in the 1970s. The synthetic resin was in essence, like a plastic that had grown cloudy with age.

The solvent deemed "perfect for the painting was not so perfect for people," Szafran said. Armed with respirators and three layers of gloves, workers spent several months using small cotton swabs to painstakingly remove the varnish.

And the veil was lifted.

"Removing that made quite a change in how the painting  appears," Szafran said. "It sort of shocked all of us — even those of us who do that kind of thing all the time with pictures. We didn't expect it to make a big visual difference, but it did."

She and her colleagues discovered "a much more dynamic and varied surface," which the varnish had masked.

"If you stand to the side of the painting, you'll get the best idea of it.  You get a much more varied surface of glossy paint and matte paint, and the different quality of paint, so you're more aware of the richness of the surface that's there," Szafran said.

"Standing in front of the painting — even from a distance — you'll see the colors have become brighter, not hugely brighter, but brighter. So by removing that varnish, the blacks became blacker, the whites became whiter, and each color became a little bit more intense.

"Combine that with the richer surface and there's just an increased depth to the painting that is wonderful to me," Szafran said.

Another significant aspect of the restoration involved building a new "stretcher" for the unframed painting, which weighs 300 pounds and has broken its first two stretchers. Szafran said they wrestled with the issue of correcting the sag or building a new stretcher that would reflect the effects of time.

They opted for creating a new, slightly curved model out of Alaskan cedar.

Learner initially wanted to see it straightened, so the edges would be back in their proper places, but was happy with the end results.

"When it went upright, there was a collective sigh of relief," he said. "Thank goodness it worked."

He thinks that will be a point of discussion among viewers.

"When they see it, most people who are critical will come around very quickly. ... With this painting, the energy and impact of the brush strokes are so strong, I can't imagine anybody saying that it looks a bit crooked," Learner said.

The ripple effects will lead right back to the University of Iowa.

"The reason it is in Iowa is not an accident," O'Harrow said. "It's a direct consequence of research and expertise at Iowa on art and how art is used in education. ... It was also the first university to offer a graduate degree in painting."

The implications for the university go far beyond restoring what O'Harrow calls "the greatest work of art in Iowa and one of the greatest modern paintings in the world." Pollock even has an Iowa tie, as his parents were born and raised in Tingley, in southwest Iowa.

The artist was born in Wyoming and grew up in Arizona and California.

The Mellon Foundation financed initial research meetings shortly after the piece arrived in Los Angeles, which allowed "some of the most important conservation scientists in the world in to meet," O'Harrow said. "About two dozen people sat in front of the painting for three days commenting on every aspect of the process.

"Just imagine experts from across the U.S. and Europe coming to talk about the conservation and the science behind it. I don't think you can amass that much intellectual firepower very easily. We couldn't do it in Iowa, not ever," he said.

"This is the Getty. You couldn't have a better partner. This is considered in the world of conservation, possibly the most important conservation project of modern art in recent memory."

From national media coverage and research to symposiums and books on the conservation and history of the painting, the spotlight will turn toward Iowa.

"This is international attention that money can’t buy because it's about substance. It's not about the superficial topics," O'Harrow said. "It's about substance and about a major project in the culture of America that Iowa is making a significant contribution to."

For the university, "it shows people that the collections at Iowa are of world significance, and that (people) should not be afraid of traveling here, moving their families here, being educated here — that Iowa does have a sophisticated cultural life — we're not just one big field," O'Harrow said with a laugh, as the Hawaii native now lives in a field in the Amish country near Iowa City.

"We need people to view Iowa as a great place, and we need people to move here," he said, "and we won't if we're seen as one big field with no culture. ...

"This project totally changes people's view. 'Oh my gosh, you have that? And your program was admired by Peggy Guggenheim? And your program was one of the pioneers of modern art in America. Really?' "

Yes, really.


From "Jackson Pollock's 'Mural': The Transitional Moment," published by the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; and Gazette files


July: Peggy Guggenheim commissions Jackson Pollock to paint a mural for the entrance hall of her five-story townhouse at 155 E. 61st St. in New York City.

July 15: Pollock notes in a postcard to his wife, Lee Krasner, “Have signed the contract and have seen the wall space for the mural — it’s all very exciting.”

Nov. 12: Guggenheim writes to Emily (Mimi) Coleman Scarborough indicating that "Mural" has been completed and installed and that a party has been held in Pollock’s honor.


June 25: Manny Farber reviews "Mural" in the New Republic, calling it “an almost incredible success.”


April 1 through May 4: "Mural" is shown in the exhibition Large-Scale Modern Paintings at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Summer: "Mural" is loaned to the Yale University Art Gallery.


Oct. 3: Guggenheim writes to Lester Longman, head of the art department at the University of Iowa, offering to donate "Mural" to the university.

Nov. 1: Guggenheim asks Pollock’s current dealer, Betty Parsons, for a valuation of "Mural" and subsequently rejects Parsons’s estimate of $3,000 as too low.

Nov. 29: Longman writes separate letters to Guggenheim and to George Heard Hamilton at the Yale University Art Gallery accepting the donation of "Mural."


June 29: Longman writes to Hamilton questioning why "Mural" has not been sent.

October: Mural arrives at the University of Iowa.


Aug. 11: Pollock dies in an alcohol-related automobile accident.


Feb. 13: As she also gave the University of Iowa Pollock's "Portrait of H.M." (1945), Guggenheim writes to Frank Seiberling suggesting that the university consider trading "Mural" for a 1928 painting by Georges Braque.

March 7: Seiberling, head of the university’s art department, politely refuses the swap.


"Mural" is included in a Jackson Pollock retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Conservators express concern about the painting's condition.


"Mural" undergoes conservation treatment in Iowa.


June 9 to 13: When record flooding on the Iowa River threatens the University of Iowa Museum of Art, "Mural" and the rest of the UI's 12,000-piece collection are evacuated and sent to Chicago for storage.


March: "Mural" and most of the UI's collection is moved to the Figge Museum in Davenport.

April 19 to Aug. 2: "A Legacy for Iowa: Pollock's 'Mural' and Modern Masterworks from the University of Iowa Museum of Art" draws more than 150,000 visitors to the Figge Museum.


April 5 to July 15: "Mural" is on display at the Des Moines Art Center. Shortly thereafter, it travels to the Getty Center in Los Angeles for technical study, restoration, cleaning and conservation.


March 11 to June 1: "Mural" and its restoration process are featured in two galleries at the Getty Center in Los Angeles.

June 10 to April 10, 2015: "Mural" will be exhibited at the Sioux City Art Center

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